So you want to be a welder but you don’t want to pay for school. It’s understandable, considering the exorbitant cost of college and the crippling amount of student loan debt held by the average American. But is it actually doable?
While enrolling in a formal training program may be the most straightforward path to becoming a welder, you CAN learn the trade without paying tuition. Here, we’ll explain how to do it and share some tips that will help you out along the way.
It’s possible to learn almost anything, including welding, on your own with the help of the internet, the right tools, and a trusted friend or mentor to guide you. Some types of welding are easier to learn on your own than others; if you’re looking to avoid the formal schooling route, this is the best place to start.
Metal inert gas (MIG) welding, for example, is notorious for being easy to pick up because of the availability of the equipment, the ease of use, and the straightforward technology. With the proper setup and safety protocols in place, operating a MIG welder isn’t much more complicated than pulling a trigger.
Will the resulting weld be a good one? Probably not at first, but it’s a skill you can practice on your own and improve over time, working your way up to be proficient enough to get an entry-level welding position.
Other types of welding require more advanced equipment, take greater skill, and are better learned via an instructor.
But this doesn’t mean your instructor has to be a paid professor teaching you in a classroom; an acquaintance or neighbor who’s a welder can show you the ropes enough for you to start practicing and improving your technique.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, paying careful attention to safety measures, there are countless videos on platforms like YouTube for almost every type of welding that can give you further tips to improve your skills.
The short answer is, it depends. How much time do you have to work on it? How much money are you willing to spend on supplies? Do you have access to equipment? Do you have any friends or family who are willing to let you take on practice projects? All of these factors will influence how long it takes you to learn to weld.
A formal welding program typically takes between six to eight months to complete. Generally speaking, this is a good ballpark for becoming proficient in basic welding even if you’re not going to school for it. Becoming a master at it will take several years.
Without a formal training structure to follow, you’ll need to take more initiative to learn what you need to know to get certified, and you’ll probably need to ask for help along the way. Still, it is possible to become a certified welder without going to school. Here are three things that will help you on your path.
Most employers who are looking to hire welders are going to focus less on your schooling and more on your certifications. Certifications come from an accredited organization and recognize your ability to perform your job to a certain standard.
To get into the field of welding without going to school, the first certification you’ll want to pursue is your Certified Welder credential from the American Welding Society (AWS).
Thankfully, this credential has no prerequisites attached to it, meaning anyone can take the exam without completing any formal training. You simply need to demonstrate that you can perform a certain type of weld to a fixed set of specifications. Still, you shouldn’t expect to just walk in and ace the test after picking up a welder a few times.
In addition to having lots of practice, it’s a good idea to read over AWS’s background materials on the Certified Welder program. You’ll also want to know the specifications you’ll be tested for in your exam.
For example, here is a set of specifications used to certify welders to AWS D1.1-2010–the standard for structural steel. AWS allows you to test the procedures for structural steel, petroleum pipeline, sheet metal, and chemical refinery welding.
If you’re applying for a welding job with a particular company, they may require you to get certified to their specifications. This makes sense since you’ll need to know how to perform the type of welds they use regularly in their operations.
Once again, it’s immensely helpful to research these specifications before going in to take the certification exam.
Once you pass the Certified Welder examination, you’ll receive your credential card, which is transferable from state to state and job to job. Your credential will remain valid as long as you complete a maintenance form every six months
Now that we’ve talked about certification, you might be wondering where you can get the experience you need to pass the certification exam. In addition to practicing welding on your own, a job that gives you access to welding tools and materials is another great avenue to gain experience.
Here are three entry-level jobs that are a practical choice if you’re looking for the opportunity to try your hand at welding.
Fabricator/manufacturing. Fabricators work in a manufacturing environment, usually producing products in an assembly-line style setting. Many of these jobs require spot welding or MIG welding.
The work is highly specific to the product being manufactured, so you’ll likely be performing the same type of weld over and over again. This is a great chance to hone your skill in producing a sound weld and get comfortable with the equipment used to create it.
Auto body/repair shop. Auto body and machine repair shops are ripe with opportunities to get your hands dirty welding since it’s probably the most-used technique of any in the job.
Shopworkers use welding to create and repair parts and join metals like aluminum and steel, as well as using related techniques like grinding and brazing to finish the job. Knowing these techniques will come in handy in any type of welding career.
Construction. If you’re strong, willing to work hard, and don’t mind the outdoors, you should be able to get a job in one of the many different facets of construction, from framing to roofing to flooring and more.
While an entry-level construction job might not require a ton of welding on a regular basis, it’s a great way to gain experience on a job site and get familiar with the various processes and equipment used in the building field. Plus, you’ll establish beneficial relationships that can lead to future welding job opportunities.
In welding, what you know matters, but who you know plays heavily into your ability to break into the field, too, especially if you don’t have the connections from a formal training program. So, consider all options that will improve your chances of getting a job, including:
Getting a mentor. A mentor is an invaluable resource when you’re just starting out in your career. Someone who’s been in the welding game for a while can not only teach you technical skills but give you guidance on the types of jobs you might enjoy most and help you sidestep some of the mistakes they made in their own career.
Mentorship doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal or fancy arrangement; any seasoned welder that you trust and respect can serve in a mentor capacity.
Apprenticeship. An apprenticeship is a formal program in which you learn welding while gaining real-world work experience. Unlike a vocational school, which you pay to attend, an apprenticeship pays you for taking part in it.
As you might guess, welding apprenticeships can be competitive to land, but if you can get one they’re an excellent entry point into a welding career.
Joining a welding union. Welding unions are powerful, resourceful organizations that help welders advance their careers and obtain favorable working conditions. Joining one can be a straightforward path to good-paying jobs on government contracts and other lucrative projects.
Even if you ultimately don’t meet the criteria to join right away or if you decide not to join, simply having a conversation with your local union organizer can be a wealth of information on the next best steps to take in your pursuit of welding.
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